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On air: Does an artist's private life overshadow their work?

Ben Sutherland Ben Sutherland | 09:42 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

gibson386.jpgPolice in the US are to review allegations that actor and director Mel Gibson hit his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva - just as a new set of remarks allegedly containing racial slurs is released.

Since the start of this month three tapes allegedly containing Gibson using racist language towards his ex-girlfriend have been released on the internet. While Gibson has not responded, their authenticity has not been denied, and he has been dropped by his agency.

And Gibson has previous - in 2006 he made anti-semitic comments during his arrest for drink-driving and was given three years' probation.

His friend, the actress Whoopi Goldberg, has defended him, saying:

"I don't like what he did here but I know Mel, and I know that he's not a racist. You can say he's being a bone head, but I can't sit and say that he's a racist having spent time with him in my house with my kids."

But does all this make a difference to how you see his films?

Has your appreciation of Braveheart, Apocalypto or The Passion Of The Christ been changed by the knowledge of the views of their director?

Another director with serious questions over him is Roman Polanski. Although no longer under house arrest in Switzerland, the director does still have an Interpol warrant in effect for 188 countries for a 1977 child sex case.

But does the accomplishment of a great cinematic work like Chinatown or The Pianist diminish by knowing that the artist responsible fled the US after allegedly sleeping with a 13-year-old girl?

There are many other examples. Michael Jackson paid the family of Jordan Chandler $20m in an out-of-court settlement following allegations he had sexually abused the 13-year-old; he also admitted to sharing a bed with children. Did this change your view of his music?

On the other hand, the mantra of the BBC's resident film critic Mark Kermode is "Trust the tale, not the teller" - that the art should be seen separately from its creator.

Philip Larkin is one of the greatest poets in English of the last 100 years. But he was also a racist and sexist; there are recordings of him singing racist songs with his wife.

Look at the statues of Eric Gill, that adorn the BBC's Broadcasting House and the Palais des Nations, now the European HQ of the United Nations in Geneva.

Does it change your view of them to learn Gill regularly had sex with two of his daughters, his sisters and even the family dog?

As Fiona MacCarthy, who wrote the biography of Gill that revealed these details, explained:

"If you actually stop looking or listening to people whose moral conduct you disapprove of, you are not left with all that much Gill's behaviour was obviously reprehensible. He was a child abuser and he did completely renege on his Catholic principles. But what do we do? Do we turn our eyes away from his wonderful works of art or do we, as I think we should, try to explore further and see how they were arrived at."

Is it possible to divorce the private artist from the public art?

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